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Jail garden now sells vegetables to upscale restaurants
Chicago inmates cultivate produce for new, high-end customers: Charlie Trotter's and The Publican

Thursday, September 09, 2010
Chicago Tribune
by Kevin Pang

The basil has a perfume of its color and the season: a warm, summer's green, herbaceous and sweet. Its leaves cup outward like turtle shells, long and slinky, germinating from plastic black trays inside a steamy greenhouse.

The greenhouse sits 30 yards from Division 9, a maximum-security ward housing murderers and rapists. Separated from them by fences topped with razor coil, the basil lies within a lush patch of life, in an unexpected garden on the grounds of the Cook County Jail. For inmates who are allowed to work here, the ones convicted of far less dangerous crimes, the garden is an oasis within barbed-wired misery. Except oases are often mirages, a figment of the desperate. This is real. The sun peeks through, and life sprouts.

Over six hours, the basil will pass through at least four sets of hands. The first belong to someone who made a terrible mistake. The second doesn't think that makes the first a bad person. The third cooks at one of Chicago's finest restaurants, who will serve the basil to the fourth, the diner, oblivious that the dish they order might right the road for those who've traveled the wrong path.

The inmate

For 17 years, the Cook County sheriff's garden program has donated its wares to food banks and churches. While this continues today (1,700 pounds so far this summer), this year inmates classified as low-risk offenders began growing produce to sell to restaurants such as Charlie Trotter's and The Publican. They graduate from the 10-week course with Master Gardeners' certificates from the University of Illinois Extension. The summer session's graduation is Thursday.

The inmates have never heard of the restaurants whose produce they supply. Some haven't touched fruits or vegetables in years.

Tobias Johnson is 30. "I've never tasted a raw tomato until I came in here. Never," he says. "But I tried it with some salt, and man, it was sweet."

He has tasted ketchup, but never a tomato. On the West and South sides where he grew up, his meals came in buckets and from drive-through windows.

Now Johnson has tried fennel, endive and Swiss chard. He can tell marjoram from sage, Thai basil from regular basil.

It's not the first time Johnson's been incarcerated. This time, he struck his girlfriend in a fit of rage. That landed him 120 days here.

But Johnson has never experienced calmness like in the garden. Many inmates say the same thing: the 14,000-square-foot space soothes them and provides time to reflect.

"I was always ready to jump at things," Johnson says. "But this garden calms me. It's meditation. It helps me take a moment to think before I react."

Inmates volunteer for the program, and not everyone is a right fit. Those accepted are considered low-risk offenders and are trusted with shears, pruners and knives. Through 17 years of the program and 450 participants, not one piece of garden equipment has gone missing.

"I ain't really accomplished nothing in my life, but when I started accomplishing something right here, it felt good," says Johnson, one of 16 who graduate Thursday. "My people, they don't know about this. I'm gonna have a couple of my family members come out here for the graduation. This is gonna put a smile on their face."

The man in charge

Michael Taff bags the basil and tosses it in a blue cooler. He is produce deliveryman and the garden program's Mr. Day-to-Day. He's boot-deep in a dirt patch with the inmates, telling them: "Look where your life has gone." He doesn't think Tobias Johnson's mistakes make him a bad person.

Seven years ago, Taff joined the sheriff's office to become its building coordinator. His boss asked if he was interested in running the garden.

A garden? Taff, 58, a South Side native, a former outside linebacker in a semipro football league, a meat-and-potatoes guy who breaks his fried onion rings to remove the onion, was leery. Then he thought: "Rosey Grier, a Hall of Fame football player, knits. And if he can knit, I can garden."

Taff had no horticulture background. He took the same classes as the inmates: botany, insects, how plants get nutrients from soil. Now the garden has changed him too. He'll opt for grapes and apples instead of Hungry-Man Frozen Dinners.

The program is nearing self-sufficiency (profits — $3,000 this summer — are reinvested in the garden). Charlie Trotter's, the acclaimed four-star restaurant in Lincoln Park, was Customer No. 1.

"I think it's incredibly courageous," said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. "There are many other places these restaurants could go to get produce, but they've decided to make a statement and be very public about it."

At a restaurant on the level of The Publican or Charlie Trotter's, quality can't be compromised by the good will of publicity. The produce is showcased front and center.

At Charlie Trotter's, executive chef Matthias Merges uses the garden's zucchini in several dishes: a tempura-fried zucchini blossom stuffed with ricotta and capers, and another course that features a slow-braised zucchini with caraway seed and olive oil. They buy from the jail garden not just for the philanthropy, but, as Merges reasoned, because the product is good.

Above all, officials hope to place inmates into jobs after their release. But many don't make it because of their criminal records, and they revert to old ways. On average, more than half of released inmates will find themselves back in jail.

David Devane, who heads the Department of Community Supervision and Intervention at the sheriff's office, and who founded the garden, touts the program's low recidivism rate as proof of success. They say that since 2008, only 13.8 percent of program graduates have returned to jail.

Taff arrives with his cooler full of basil to The Publican, the Fulton Market restaurant. It's passed off to Paul Kahan, the restaurant's executive chef. Kahan asks Taff, "What'd you bring us? Five pounds? Ten pounds?"

The chef

Six pounds of basil, to be precise.

"Even with our good farmers, the stuff is out of the ground for a day," Kahan says. Taff "picks it and runs it over here. It's still warm."

A few months ago, Taff invited the staff from The Publican to tour the garden. Once the staff sampled the produce, Taff offered the restaurant below-market prices. Taff said he wasn't looking to profit. Kahan and crew were sold.

The restaurant doesn't shy away from its association with the jail. Nichols Farm tomatoes appear in the same menu typeface as Cook County Sheriff's Garden summer squash. Have there been curious looks from diners? Of course.

That was the biggest hurdle Taff thought he'd encounter, the perception that the produce was somehow tainted because it was harvested by inmates. "To my surprise, (the restaurants) were really receptive to me," he says.

That's because, as Publican's chef de cuisine Brian Huston, says, "The basil's been as good as anybody else's basil we've gotten."

The diner

By day's end, the basil will have traveled five miles north from a jail to a restaurant, through three disparate sets of hands, and end up in a house-made pasta dish with tomatoes and roasted corn. That night, 55 people would order the dish, many without a second thought.

kpang@tribune.com


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